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Exquisite Grief

And when she shall die, take her and cut her out in little stars, and she will make the face of heaven so fine that all the world will be in love with night, and pay no worship to the garish sun.

William Shakespeare, Romeo and Juliet

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And now it’s happened: I’ve lost my mother. She laid down her broken body — soft and comforting still, but no longer up to the task of moving her through the days — and died. She laid down her weary head, the short-circuiting neurons in her brain finally quiet, and slept.

In her own bed, under her lovely floral quilt, she drifted away and left physical concerns behind in the vessel housing them. Her breathing stretched, the silence between each ragged inhalation hung with anticipation. Her pounding heart slowed and faded to a quiver, like the fluttering wings of a little bird, until it beat no more. My sister quoted Shakespeare: “To-morrow, and to-morrow, and to-morrow, creeps in this petty pace from day to day.” For Mom, the pace has ceased its forward motion; there are no more tomorrows. And in retrospect, the petty becomes hallowed. “Out, out brief candle! Life’s but a walking shadow . . .”

I knew it was coming, or rather, that she was going. For months, I mourned her absence even in her presence, trying to absorb everything and indelibly imprint her image on my memory. The days, finite and measured, poured like sand through the hourglass as I watched them go. I knew I would lose my mother, but I didn’t know it would bring me to my knees.

I didn’t know how heavy grief could be, that I’d drag myself under its weight from my bed each morning, pulled into motion only by the slipstream of routine. Even then, fatigue would leave me to endure the hours until I could curl up again, alone. I didn’t know the world would be too loud and too bright and too fast, its audacity for going on as if the cosmos hadn’t shifted unforgivable. I didn’t know I’d hide from my neighbors or seek solace nightly in wine or toss and turn restlessly in my sleep, dreaming of something just out of my grasp. I didn’t know it would feel like depression.

I didn’t know it would hit this hard, losing my 71-year-old mother to multiple sclerosis. I didn’t think I was entitled to the same bereavement as my friend who lost her 21-year-old son, full of potential, to a heroine overdose; or my friend, whose 5-year-old grandson was taken by a brain tumor before his life had even begun; or my sister, whose husband died of kidney cancer when he was 47, leaving a young son fatherless. Because Mom had been ill for decades and because I’d planned for the end of her life, because she’d become increasingly distraught and difficult, because she suffered, because she was at peace and ready, because I believe her death to be merely a transition — for all these reasons I thought my sorrow would be tempered. I know now, it matters not if the death is tragic or abrupt or expected, if the life has been long or interrupted; grief pierces and reverberates through all who have loved and lost.

I didn’t know it would lodge in my body, that I’d tamp down and swallow my emotions. That staying busy would be a coping mechanism. That avoiding reminders and seeking distractions would keep me functionally numb, but one handwritten note could unravel my hold. I didn’t know it would be a physical urge, this need to cry, and when unleashed, the intensity would crash over me in waves, plunging me under and washing me to shore only when the tide went out. I didn’t know I’d be a private mourner, that I’d get through the memorial with only a few tears, but in the dark of night, in my husband’s arms, I’d finally weep unabashedly, like a child.

I didn’t know people could show such tenderness, that when I returned home I’d find my friends had cleaned my house and left plants and flowers and cards and nourishing food. I didn’t know their generosity would humble me profoundly, that every thought and prayer, every gesture, every act of service would soften the pain and blur the edges.

I didn’t know I could miss my sisters so terribly, the airport goodbyes a severing. I didn’t know we would merge into the embodiment of the best of our mother, that separation would feel unnatural, impossible even. I knew the sacred experience of nurturing the exodus of our mother’s spirit from this world would bring us closer; I didn’t know escorting her body under a full moon to the teaching hospital where she would donate her brain for research would be just as holy.

I knew we’d draw comfort from each other, but I didn’t know heaving sobs punctuated by belly laughs could be so cathartic, that the somber ceremony of scattering her ashes at the ocean’s edge on a cold, overcast day could suddenly turn uproariously funny when one sister, attempting a dramatic toss into the wind, tripped and fell into the freezing surf. I didn’t know we would celebrate our mother’s magnificent life with champagne toasts, crying as we sang along to Helen Reddy and Anne Murray and Karen Carpenter.

I knew we were strong women, that working hard was inextricably woven into who she raised us to be. But, I didn’t know we could clean out her apartment in 3½ days, a whole life summarized in the boxes we carted to my sister’s garage. I didn’t know evidence of Mom’s bravery and integrity would manifest in the intimate task of settling her affairs; not only proof of her creative, tenacious resilience — the hallmark of her personality — but also, signs of her mental decline no one could see.

I knew she was loved by many, not only friends, but those to whom she bonded with fierce loyalty, her chosen family. I didn’t know I’d dread the task of calling each one to deliver the news, that the words would stick in my throat. I didn’t know that their lives would also be bereft without her and I’d be compelled to comfort them, even as my own heart was breaking.

I knew the daily texts would stop, that I wouldn’t hear her voice exclaiming, “Hi, honey!” on the other end of the phone, that when she came to visit it was the last time. I didn’t know when I logged into her account and shut off her electricity the sudden realization of its permanence would take my breath away. I didn’t know I’d question if I should have done more and agonize over whether I’d been enough. I didn’t know I’d ache for her forgiveness.

I knew she’d stay close, that we would feel her; I didn’t know she would come to me when I was exhausted and spent, in the dream-like trance of half-sleep, and spread comfort like warmth through my chest, or when I was quiet and contemplative, in a cool breeze, gently caressing my face and answering my question, “Is that you, Mom?”

I didn’t know the previous contentment with my pretty little life would now feel like complacency; that restless whispers would become clamoring discontent, catapulting me into change and insisting I choose a different path. I didn’t know this transformation was not hers alone; it was mine as well. I know now I’ll never be the same, but therein lies the gift: the pain that shattered my carefully crafted day-to-day, leaving me to ponder my purpose and revisit the very meaning of my existence, has allowed me to create the reality I was born to live.

I know now losing my mother hurts like hell; her absence incarnate is like a light gone out and it will be dark for a while. But in the darkness, I awaken. Holding hands with divinity, I glimpse that I, too am divine. My loss is not diminished by this blissful epiphany, and surprisingly, I’m glad. I don’t want its sharpness blunted. I welcome the overflowing experience, brutal one moment and glorious the next. I did not know, I could not know I would cherish my grief, a grief made exquisite because I loved her so. As I love her now. As I will forever more. This I always knew.

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Filed under Aging, Enlightenment, Family, Grandparents, Gratitude, Grief, Letting Go, Loss, Memories, Motherhood, Sisterhood

In Her Image

Sometimes I feel like a motherless child
Sometimes I feel like a motherless child
Sometimes I feel like a motherless child
A long way from home

African-American Spiritual

Katie Lyman
Age 20, circa 1933

I’m going to lose my mother. It’s an inevitability I never used to think about. My grandmother, Katie lost her mother in 1920 when she was only seven years old. She was the second of five children and the oldest daughter. Separated by scarcely more than a year, the first three were born before her parents divorced. Her mother remarried and after a four-year gap, two more babies were born in quick succession. Katie’s stepfather moved the young family from the city to a rural farm in Wyoming when the littlest were two and one and her mother, Loretta, was eight months pregnant.

My Grammy wrote in her memoirs, “I remember snatches of my mother. It seemed she never sat down at the table because she was always waiting on we kids and Papa.” From my 21st century vantage point, I can only imagine how exhausting and laborious this 24-year-old mother’s life was, raising five small children on the prairie, without modern conveniences, while pregnant. Again. Before they were settled in the new homestead, Loretta’s sixth child was stillborn. Flooding prevented the doctor from reaching her, though we can’t know whether it would have made any difference. She became very ill in the days following but managed to send a letter to her mother, Tennie, saying the baby had died but she ‘supposed she’d be all right.’ Without the convenience of modern technology, that letter didn’t arrive until 2 weeks later, and on the same day as a different letter which carried the news that her daughter had died.

In Katie’s words, “. . . [they] took her to town in a spring wagon with a bed made in it. It was the last time I saw her alive. She said, ‘Goodbye kids. I’ll be back in a day or two.’ I had such an empty feeling. I went behind a tree and cried.”

I was 18 when I left home for the first time to attend college and I missed my mother, Patricia, deeply. A vocal music major, I sang with an elite a cappella choir. Every day at 1:00 pm we rehearsed, our voices painting tonal landscapes in which I lost myself. The eight-part harmonies of “Sometimes I Feel Like A Motherless Child,” wrapped around me as the haunting melody, in a minor key, wept with visceral sorrow, expressing the universal loss; a child without its mother. I was reminded of my grandmother and how she was set adrift so young, alone in the world without an anchor to keep her safely harbored. I wondered, what happens to a girl when her mother dies before she’s become a woman herself. How does she know who to become? And who will show her who she already is? A mother shapes her daughter by simply being. Not nature verses nurture; the unfolding lies in both.

There is something profound in the biological connection between a mother and her daughter that transcends the quality of their relationship or the amount of time spent together. The genetic design that serves as a blueprint for the subsequent generation exists despite circumstance. Daughters can sculpt themselves, choosing how they manifest their best potential, but DNA maps their identity; the double helix provides the framework on which they build themselves. We emerge from those who come before us, carrying their pedigree within; there is no escaping our lineage.

At times, I’ll admit, this is the very thing I’ve rejected—the sameness. When face-to-face with the likeness, I balk and break away, accentuating my difference: I am my-SELF, not a copy of my mother and aunts and grandmother. And yet, at other times, I embrace my tribe with pride and solidarity; the familiarity claims me and I cannot deny my own belonging.

My life unfolded with similar patterns to my mother and grandmother. My grandmother was the eldest daughter. My mother was the eldest daughter. I am the eldest daughter. My grandmother had three daughters and one son, and her youngest, a daughter, was born when she was 40. My mother has three daughters and one son. Her youngest was a daughter, born when she was 40. I have three daughters and one son, and my youngest, a daughter, was born when I was 40. And we have more than numbers in common. We come from strong women; pioneer stock with do-it-yourself independence. We come from mental illness and trauma and divorce. We come from creativity, talent and passion, fiery tempers to match. We come from tender hearts and soft bodies and soothing hands.

I am my mother. I am not my mother. I want to be like my mother. I want to be nothing like my mother. All are true. And one truth remains superlative, no matter how old, we need our mothers; as babes and teenagers, as young mothers ourselves, as aging adults. To be nurtured and comforted, to be cherished and reassured; these are needs we do not grow out of. The simple presence of one’s mother on the planet provides the possibility of a light in the darkness. And regardless of conflict or resolution, intimacy or estrangement, issues past or present, in the end, forgiveness clears the space for only love to remain.

When Katie neared the end of her life she said to her daughter, “When I can’t live alone, will you come and get me?” And Patricia–my mother–did.  Instrumental in the sacred metamorphosis, she gently ushering her mother out of the world, just as her mother did, bringing her into the world.

It’s nearing the end of my mother’s life and the loss has already begun; the grief is nudging me, whispering. A mother’s first instinct is to shield her child from pain, but she cannot shield them from the pain of her own death, try as she might. I’m going to lose my mother, and soon, yet I feel the stirrings of my ancestry lending me strength. I sense the circle of grandmothers bringing me peace. Tennie, mother of Loretta; Loretta, mother of Katie; Katie, mother of Patricia; Patricia, mother of Lisa; we are linked, one to the next, and an unspoken knowledge pulses between us: a mother cannot be lost. She is connected to her children forever. Wherever we go, we carry our mothers with us and we are never far from home.

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The Long Haul

Photo by Randee McClung

I’m washing up in a restroom at the Oklahoma City airport and for a moment I can’t place my location: hospital? hotel? restaurant? Elegant water faucets and gleaming granite countertops add to my sense of disorientation. I don’t even recognize my own hands. Looking down at the palms rubbing together, the lather foaming, I watch with detachment as water rinses the suds away to reveal age spots and scars. The shrieking of a turbine dryer cuts the air and I’m fascinated and horrified in equal measure by the effects of high-velocity air on crinkly, tissue-paper skin as it undulates against bird bones, exposing skeletal phalanges and large blue veins, tendons as taut as violin strings. These can’t be my hands.

But they are, as are the 50 years it took them to become this weathered. As is this face that looks back at me from the mirror, eyes reddened and tired, cheeks gaunt — succulent youthful flesh gone, hair a bit frizzy. I lean in closer and smooth my makeup. I reapply my lip-gloss and pat down a few errant curls.

“You’re a grandmother,” I think, scrutinizing my reflection.

Two weeks and two days ago my first grandchild was born; the son of my only son. Jeremy and his wife Carly live 7½ hours south of us. This is my second trip down. The first, an urgent drive prompted by the onset of labor was a magical drive through the night, alone with my thoughts. I wasn’t sure I’d make it, but, as it turned out, life threw the kids a few curve balls. From a long and difficult labor to an emergency C-section to a baby in the NICU, nothing went according to plan. They were thrust into an unforeseen reality both frightening and uncertain.

When it became clear the baby wasn’t going home any time soon, I stayed. It wasn’t even a choice; there was nowhere else I could be. My husband, Steven shouldered the domestic load, my colleagues covered at work, and my busy life went on without me.

After ten long days Ashton was diagnosed with a heart defect that required an immediate operation. I went home for a few days to regroup and came back for the surgery. This time, with Steven traveling on business, I took my daughters who still live at home, Sydney, 14, and Haley, 10, out of school and brought them along. On that momentous day, they sat with us in the waiting room. Headphones on, they munched on Cheez-Its and Slim Jims while I kept my hands busy knitting a baby blanket. Thoughts of the pediatric cardiothoracic surgeon operating on a tiny newborn’s heart the size of a walnut raced around my mind. I tried instead to concentrate on the prayers uttered by many to guide those skillful hands.

Time stretched then folded in on itself; surreal, interminable. Then suddenly, the gowned doctor was there and we exhaled in learning Ashton tolerated the delicate procedure beautifully. A full recovery was expected; the new family would be on their way home soon.

Heady with relief, celebratory even, we’ve come to the airport now to pick up my husband; his absence has been felt. With some logistical creativity — a bit of planes, trains and automobiles — we maneuver to get everyone where they need to be. And in the midst, our typical routine churns along demanding attention. A perpetual balancing act, it’s been the norm for a very long time. Making the choice to spread our children out over 18 years has resulted in a parenting marathon.

We have friends in the trenches of young parenthood; their lives filled with diapers, sleepless nights and temper tantrums. Friends running from soccer games to piano lessons, who help with homework and college applications. We meet them at orchestra concerts and cheer practice and neighborhood BBQs.

We have friends in empty nests; their children gone to college or moving away to embark on careers. Friends welcoming new members into their family as their kids get married and have babies of their own. We swap stories about in-laws, the cost of weddings, and the phenomena of boomerang kids.

We don’t, however, have many friends who’re in both, and who consequently experience what I call CPF: chronic parenting fatigue.

Our oldest, Melissa, was a senior in high school when we were pregnant with our youngest, a fact which repulsed her.

“Ew!” she said, “You’re going to be old parents.”

And she was right. We’re kind of old already and we’re not done yet. I often wonder what will be left of us when all the kids are gone? Who will we be by the time we get there? We are not the same people we once were, not the same couple. The idea that marriage is both strengthened by the challenges of family life and crushed under its weight seems a paradox, but it is profoundly true. Steven and I have never stopped loving one another, but this is not to say we always like each other. Stress and exhaustion make us irritable and sometimes we’re just not nice. Everyone else gets the best of us and all that remains for our beloved is the dregs: we are robbed of the person we love most.

Those are the times I miss my sweetheart. I miss the belly laughs his sharp wit never fails to provoke. I miss his pride in my accomplishments, his comfort when I’m melancholy. I miss the pleasure of his company; gourmet dinners and stimulating conversation. I miss the end of the day when our minds unwind and our bodies entangle; when we make space for each other’s innermost thoughts. I miss spontaneous weekend getaways and leisurely lovemaking. I miss his everyday kisses.

Without these things we’re great business partners, roommates and co-parents, but we aren’t the friends and lovers we started out being. Without this spark of intimacy, our day-to-day is reduced to an endless to-do list wearing us down. And out. As Garth sang, we’re “much too young to feel this damned old.” Stepping out of our responsibilities and indulging our love affair is the only way we’re going to see this through.

It’s beautiful to watch our son and daughter-in-law lean together when life necessitates they surrender control; when patience and the ability to set aside their own needs is called for. Faced with this daunting new role, I wonder if our son knows his parents grapple with the same demands and sometimes teeter on the edge themselves. I doubt he knows what’s ahead in the long haul, but I do know the richness will be far greater than he could ever imagine.

I hitch my purse to my shoulder and take one last look in the mirror.

“Not too bad for a grandma,” I surmise and turn to walk out.

Leaving the restroom my eyes cast forward down the long shiny corridor to the baggage claim where the kids have been waiting for Steven. And then I see him. I drink him in like water in the desert.

He bends over to hug Haley, and Sydney throws herself over his back. Jeremy and Carly cluster around him and everyone is talking at once. I walk toward them, unnoticed. He looks up over the top of Haley’s head and our eyes meet. I can’t help but smile as my feet lead me steadily to the arms I can feel around me before I get there.

In that moment I love every chaotic, ecstatic, dynamic morsel that makes up our life and it is all wrapped up in this man, inextricably woven into our journey together. He’s my one and only. Eventually, we’ll make it to a tropical paradise or at least to St. Louis for a weekend, but for now, this is all I need.

In the commotion, I weave my way through the kids to come in closer and stand on my tiptoes.

“Hey, Granddad,” I whisper, brushing my lips against the 5-o’clock shadow on his jaw. “Let’s go see our baby.”

 

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

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Filed under Aging, Babies, Childbirth, Grandparents, Gratitude, Growing Up, Marriage, Motherhood, Parenting

Making Tear Soup

Tear Soup“Are you going to Colorado tomorrow, Mom?”

Sydney stands in front of the refrigerator and asks the question for the third time this morning.

“No, honey.  Two weeks, remember?  In two weeks.”

I gently nudge her out of the way to open the door and place the milk jug on the top shelf.

“Two weeks. Yes.” She repeats to herself. “So, not tomorrow?” she asks, stepping towards me.

“Nope.  Not tomorrow,” I say, bending around her to put the oatmeal in the cupboard.

“Where’s Dad?” she asks, following me to the sink where I rinse breakfast bowls, our conversation a déjà vu of earlier when I ladled the hot cereal into these same bowls.

“Dad’s at PaPa’s, remember?”

“At PaPa’s?”

Sydney typically wants reiteration of our comings and goings—repeating the schedule outloud makes her feel secure—but lately, she’s been needing extra reassurance that her Dad and I will be around.  Lately . . .  since her grandmother died of leukemia.

“Yes, at PaPa’s house. They’re watching movies and having dinner,” I answer, placing the dishes in the dishwasher.

“Having dinner?”  She echoes.

“Mm-hmmm,” I reply, looking below the sink for the dishwasher detergent.

Sydney clears her throat, then coughs into her elbow.

“Um, Mom?  Is Dad coming home tonight?”

I take a deep breath.  Patience, Lisa.

“No, remember?  Dad’s staying the night to keep PaPa company so he’s not sad and alone.”  I pour soap into the dispenser, shut the lid and press the start button.

“Because MeMe’s dead, right?” she adds.

There it is.  I wipe my hands on a dish towel and come close, bending down to look at her.

“Right, honey. MeMe is dead.”

Her eyebrows shoot up and her eyes open wide.  She pushes her glasses up on the bridge of her nose, sniffs, and tucks the hair behind her ears.  But she doesn’t cry.  She hasn’t cried.

Children grieve differently than adults, and differently from each other. Refamiliarizing myself with the work of Dr. Elizabeth Kübler-Ross, who in 1969 first proposed the five stages of griefdenial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance, reminds me that the phases can be in any sequence, intermittent or overlapping, or even skipped altogether. As a parent, I need to help my children with their grief work as well as tend to my own.

Both girls have been a bit stoic—they can’t possibly understand that their lives have changed irrevocably—though I expect when Thanksgiving and Christmas and their birthdays come around, MeMe’s absence will trigger a new level of realization.  And especially with Sydney, I wonder how much she can conceptualize about the permanence of death.  They both loved their grandmother and will undoubtedly miss her, but it’s been concerning to me they don’t seem more upset.

A package from a dear friend arrived like a long distance hug. Tear Soup: A Recipe for Healing After Loss, written by Pat Schweibert is a consoling story of Grandy who, after suffering a big loss sets out to make tear soup from scratch. Haley and I cuddled up on my bed and read how Grandy chose her largest pot to make her soup because she would need plenty of room for all the feelings and tears to stew in over time.

“. . .  she slowly stirred all her precious and not so precious memories into the pot. Grandy winced when she took a sip of the broth.  All she could taste was salt from her teardrops.  It tasted bitter, but she knew this was where she had to start.”

As I read this sweet but profound metaphor, my own tears began to flow.  Haley had voiced sadness, but hadn’t cried yet.

“I want to cry but I can’t.  I feel like my emotions are locked up in a drawer and I can’t find the key,” she confessed precociously.

Page after page, the book poetically and artfully validated the human experience of bereavement.  Paragraph by paragraph, the words described our unique, acute experience of losing MeMe, and as we read, Haley found her tears.  “Tear Soup is helping us cry,” she said, laying her head on my chest, letting her tears fall on my shirt.  Together, we made tear soup of our own.

As I’m putting the girls to bed that night, Haley says, “Mommy, I miss MeMe.”

Matter-of-factly, Sydney says, “We have the same name: Sydney Kay Kent, Linda Kay Kent.”

“Yes, Sydney,” I say.  “You are named after her.”

Haley asks,  “Why aren’t you sad, Sydney?” her chin quivering.

Sydney answered calmly, “Well, I feel a little bit sad.  I heard Mom cry and I heard Dad cry and PaPa.  But I heard MeMe say, ‘I love you.’  And . . . I danced for her.”

Which was true.  After two hours of greeting friends at the visitation, Sydney had kicked off her shoes and pirouetted across the room to “Wind Beneath my Wings,” closing her eyes and moving expressively to the music in front of the podium which held vases of overflowing yellow daisies, a framed picture of Mom and a small wooden box holding her ashes, beautifully hand-crafted with a ceramic angel atop it and a plaque that read:

“Linda Kay Kent,

June 25, 1944  –  September 7, 2013”

Haley’s eyes squeeze shut against her now-copious tears as she says to her sister, “Don’t you know you’ll never see MeMe again?”

I sigh thinking, no, she doesn’t know.  Sydney doesn’t understand and might not ever.

But then Sydney says this: “Mom, every morning I wait for the bus. I feel her.  MeMe’s in the wind.”

Elusive as it seems, she’s onto something.  Maybe Syd is keeping her MeMe close in subtle ways that we can’t quite grasp, sensing her presence with a calm knowing; sensing her everywhere.  Maybe she doesn’t feel the same sense of loss because for her, MeMe isn’t completely gone.

Wrapping my arms around both my daughters, I reach for the same reassurance; for myself and for them.  Although I miss her, I take comfort in the thought that if I look, I can yet find her; in the wind through the trees, in the birds as they soar, and in the sun’s glorious rays that break through the clouds.  If I listen I can hear her voice and her laugh and feel her live on in my heart.

Our tear soup will be brewing for a long time.  The loss is painful, the memories are sharp and bittersweet, but the love shared is bigger than all of it.  We’re going to be alright.

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Filed under Down syndrome, Family, Grandparents, Grief, Letting Go, Loss, Memories, Motherhood, Special Needs

Extinguish and Evolve

Old Photos

“Mom, do you have a pencil and paper I can have?” Haley, my 10-year-old asked as we watched the ring-tailed lemurs leap from tree to tree at the San Francisco Zoo. “I need to write something down.”

Our vacation this year — part sightseeing, part family reunion — took us on a 5,000-mile adventure that included 4 flights, 3 hotels, 2 rental cars and 1 beach house. My husband, Steven and I took our two youngest, Sydney, 14, and Haley, braving airport security and mass transit to do something we love: travel.

I scrounged in my purse, finding a pen and a grocery receipt, and handed them to my daughter. I watched her walk over to a placard and started writing.

Peering over her shoulder I read:

We are burnt by the fire we have started
Proverb from Madagascar

Madagascar’s deforestation, largely the result of slash and burn agriculture, is resulting in the rapid destruction of the lemurs’ habitat and has rendered the primates endangered.

I was intrigued. “Why do you want to write this down, sweetie?”

She didn’t hesitate, “This is a good thing to remember because when you make bad choices you’ll always be affected by it; you’ll always get consequences.”

When I was growing up my mother was fond of saying, “What goes around comes around,” something I didn’t quite understand then. Looks like my daughter gets it already. Smart girl.

We drove up the California/Oregon coast to join my mom’s side of the family for a rare reunion. There are three sisters in her generation; all single and living alone. In preparation for this momentous occasion, they went through albums and storage boxes of old photographs and sent me scads of them, some faded and torn, dating back more than a hundred years. I sifted through them, selecting the best ones to create a slideshow.

For hours I worked, mesmerized by the sepia tones and black and white images of decades past and awed by uncanny family resemblances. My great-grandfather in his 20s looked shockingly like my brother at the same age; a genetic blueprint stamped across time. The photos held the energetic charge of ancestry brought to life in cryptic storytelling. At 50, for the first time I felt deep stirrings, sensing my lineage as a gossamer web linking me to strangers. As though the double helices in my DNA vibrated in recognition of my people.

The similarities are not only physical. I come from brilliant minds. A long line of artists, musicians, writers and teachers, we are creative souls and passionate innovators, yet the pedigree is rife, too, with mental illness, addiction and abuse. While the photos tell tales of triumph over loss, inspiring hope, behind the camera lie stories of pain and suffering, often at the hands of loved ones. I cannot deny the dark reality of my origins, but bringing the past into the light to examine allows me to see where I come from. And moreover, who I’ve become in spite of it. Or perhaps because of it.

Our family reunion provided the perfect opportunity to take a closer look. A kaleidoscope of personalities and interactions, the few days spent with some of the people I love most on this planet can best be described as… intense. Being together after many years apart was indescribably sweet and heartwarming. The conversations and tender reflections, just as I’d envisioned, elevated and strengthened our bonds. But patterns springing from old injuries triggered strident reactions. The tension born of control issues and power struggles — dynamics all too familiar — began to threaten the happy tone of our gathering.

At one point, I ran away. To the beach. I found a trail and followed it up a mountain, working out my thoughts to the pounding of my heart. Pumping my legs and lungs, I breathed in the cool air. By the time I emerged on a steep cliff overlooking the vastness of the ocean I’d gained perspective. In front of me was the big picture. Gorgeous waves sprayed white foam as they crashed against jagged rocks below, the sound, both powerful and calming at once. The lush pines growing along the sheered edge reminded me of the place Mom and I scattered my Grammy’s ashes.

In solitude I stood. The wind whipped at my hair. My apprehensions lifted, dissolving, blowing out to sea. I was left with a peaceful quietude and a clear mind so I could hear the voice that said, “Separate the worth of those you love from the way they behave.” Here was my salvation: In my compassion for my family I found freedom for myself.

Terri Cole, licensed psychotherapist says, “When you analyze the family belief system, you can begin to see that much of what you experience as ‘the way it is’ is just the way it was in your family of origin and that you can choose a different way of seeing yourself and your potential. Once you understand how it was, you can decide how you want it to be.”

What goes around comes around, but does that mean history must repeat itself? I think not. “When you know better, you do better,” said Maya Angelou. Can I put the fire out and stop this generation from burning the next? The answer is a resounding yes.

Though conflict was inevitable, the visit was also interspersed with priceless moments to cherish: combing the tide pools and watching the kids play in the waves, making breakfast side by side, singing with a guitar around the campfire. And the highlight, dimming the lights to take in the slideshow. My intention was not to glorify the past and hide its shadowy secrets, but to illuminate that which holds us together amidst our brokenness. It was my gift. To a soundtrack of “Seasons of Love” from the Broadway hit, Rent, years of memories passed across the screen; lifetimes told in pictures.

Five hundred twenty-five thousand six hundred minutes.
How do you measure, measure a year?
In daylights, in sunsets, in midnights, in cups of coffee,
In inches, in miles, in laughter, in strife.
Five hundred twenty-five thousand six hundred minutes.
How do you measure a year in the life?

We watched in a cacophony of noise. Shouts of recognition and celebration. Squeals of delight. And tears of mourning and regret. We’re artists; passionate and expressive (some might say dramatic). We reached out and held hands. We held each other. We forgave each other.

Like I said, intense. But, profound.

And pivotal. Because the cycle is broken with my generation. We are no longer burned by the fire that was started ages ago and our children will never know the scars our parents bore.

Back in the Bay area, after our trip to the zoo, my little family enjoyed dinner at a local bar and grill, comfortably seated in a high-backed wooden booth. Haley finished first and got squirrely. She needed to use the restroom, but had kicked off her shoes. She dove down and her denim-clad bottom piked above the table. Her bare feet followed, their blackened soles flailing in my face. Before I could stop her crawling on the floor, she cracked Steven’s shin with her head.

“Ouch!” he startled, rubbing his leg.

“Haley, get up here, now!” I said peering under the tablecloth.

She popped up, breathless. “But I had to get my shoes!”

Steven lowered his chin to level his best “listen-to-me” look at her. “This behavior isnot okay. Where are your manners? We take you out to a nice restaurant and this is how you act?”

She listened quietly, taking her licks. At this point, living out of suitcases and eating in restaurants was taking a toll on us all.

“Tomorrow night, you’re having a burrito from the gas station!” he finished, exasperated.

I looked at her repentant little face, thinking he might actually be getting through to her.

“Come on, I’ll take you to the bathroom,” I said, sliding out of the booth.

As we walked down the hallway, hand in hand, I reminded her of the quote she’d copied earlier and her own interpretation, when you make bad choices, you’ll always get consequences.

She leaned in conspiratorially and with an expression that said “the joke is on Dad,” she whispered. “They don’t even have burritos at the gas station!”

 

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Joyride

red convertibleThe secret of life is enjoying the passage of time.

Any fool can do it; there ain’t nothing to it.

Nobody knows how we got to the top of the hill.

But since we’re on our way down,

We might as well enjoy the ride.

Sliding down, gliding down, try not to try too hard.

It’s just a lovely ride.

James Taylor—The Secret ‘O Life

I don’t always recognize I’m headed for collapse until, speeding down the freeway at 100 mph, dashboard warnings flashing, I veer off the road to make an emergency stop. I’ve gotten so good at disregarding my maintenance lights, by the time I realize I’m in trouble, I’m already sputtering and careening; out of gas, overheated, or worse, out of control, crashing and taking out everyone around me.

When we moved from Missouri back to Austin, Texas in 2003, circumstances combined to create a fusion of indescribable stress that will go down in Kent family history as The-Time-Which-Must-Not-Be-Named.   Every member of our family was a hot mess; Haley, 5 weeks old, a textbook example of a colicky infant, emitted a type of banshee wailing that could literally wake the dead, and was silenced only when nursing (constantly) or sleeping (rarely).  Sydney, 4 years old, with modulating sensory integration issues, experienced overstimulation, auditorily and otherwise. She was confused and jealous.  Her ‘elopement’ was at an all-time high and, thanks to a very ambitious preschool teacher, potty training had begun in earnest (it took two years to fully train our sweetie and it wasn’t the potty that was so much the problem).  Let that image crystallize for a moment: Clingy, wailing infant on the boob and pooping-in-her-britches toddler on the run.

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Filed under Down syndrome, Family, Grandparents, Motherhood, Parenting, Self-Care, Siblings, Special Needs, Stress